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STAGE REVIEW

Director Takes the Fun Out of 'She Stoops to Conquer'

May 01, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — Truth be told, Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 Restoration comedy, "She Stoops to Conquer," is fairly silly stuff, a reminder that so-called "classics" can sometimes be lighter-than-air pastries.

It is definitely not a main-course item like other, better Restoration plays such as "The Way of the World" or "The Rivals," and it wouldn't be anyone's ideal introduction to this brilliant 18th century British form.

It's done, though, because it's fun--Goldsmith's deliberate updating of "As You Like It," "Twelfth Night" and other mistaken-identity Shakespeare comedies. Theater companies continue to figure that if audiences like these lighter Shakespeare works, they'll like "She Stoops."

And they will, but only if it is fun. Director Phyllis B. Gitlin's staging at Saddleback College's McKinney Theatre isn't very fun, exposing what a piffle the play really is. Done with style and panache, a production of "She Stoops" doesn't allow us to question its preposterous logic, its inner core of nonsense. Done less skillfully, Goldsmith's comedy can even begin to feel arch and overdone.

That's certainly the feeling here, if only because Gitlin's student cast is extremely uncomfortable acting in the declarative, mannerist Restoration style. It suggests that these actors are simply undertrained in this very specific form of performance; only a couple of them listen to the textual rhythms and find a comic tone to make it sing. You can't help but feel for students who are in way over their heads. This is not a formula for comedy, let alone a human social farce.

Goldsmith's strategy is to send his characters into knotty situations and see how they get from there to the inevitable happy ending. This schematic situation begins with Squire Hardcastle (John Miller) anticipating the arrival of one Marlow (Sean Williams), who is scheduled for marriage to his daughter Kate (Annette Homewood). Tricked by prankish Tony into thinking that Hardcastle's mansion is an inn--feel free to start scratching you head here--Marlow then becomes the plaything of Kate, who decides to pose as the "inn's" barmaid.

Everyone, except Kate (the "she" of the title), is eventually made a fool, though gently so in Goldsmith's good-natured manner. Some, including Mrs. Hardcastle (Diane L. Dunn), are made foolish just to lend another note to the comedy, and you can sense Goldsmith stooping too far to please an audience.

Only a fraction of Goldsmith's comedy comes through here. Miller, for example, is properly stout and haughty for the occasion, but his timing and accent are off. Dunn displays comic instincts that would be more effective in a contemporary work. Jeff Kelly shows juice and verve as Tony, and Williams enjoys the confused Marlow's duplicity, but neither plays the Restoration style with the confidence both roles demand.

Oddest of all is Homewood, whom Gitlin has allowed to adopt a curious half-Continental, half-British accent and speech pattern that obscures some evident acting talent. Sarah Truly Beers as the put-upon Constance, by contrast, feels totally natural in this Restoration world.

Set designer Walter B. Huntoon goes in for some trompe l'oeil effects, but why are we seeing chandeliers hanging above a country-lane scene? Kevin Cook's lights include some (underused) footlight touches. Costumer Diane Lewis doesn't show a knack for proper Restoration garb.

BE THERE

"She Stoops to Conquer," McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. Today-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7-$8. (714) 582-4656. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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